Tiny faith ...

A few encouraging words on prayer this morning from my man Frederick Bruner:

"... prayer is simply faith breathing."

"So how does the church find the abilty she needs to help the world? By believing God enough to say her prayers."

"Prayerlessness is powerlessness."

"Jesus' equations and measurements are gracious: 'If you have just a little faith, little as a grain of mustard seed, then you can say to this mountain move...' A little faith, a little prayer, is wonderfull. Jesus wants his disciples to learn that they can run marvelously on a low tank."

"Your faith is not impressive or strong and never will be; no problem, just pray like you mean it and God will do miracles."

"... mustard-seed faith is faith that is conscious of its own unbelief and its own godlessness. Jesus wants his disciples to cease groveling in shame or inadequacy because of their almost always weak faith, and he wants them to believe that even their elementary faith and prayer throbs with power."

"The point of Jesus teaching [on faith the size of a mustard seed] is that even if our faith is small, it is not feeble, for it is alive like a seed and God will do wonders with it and us, wonders that will help people much more deeply than we are helping them now."

(All from Bruner's commentary on the second half of the Gospel of Matthew)

I don't know about you all, but I need to hear these words.

When the needs in my own life,

the needs in my family's life,

the needs in the lives of those who seek me out for counsel,

the needs of my community,

the needs of my country,

the needs of the world...

When all these needs overwhelm me,

when my faith seems too small,

when my prayers seem like whispering in the dark,

I need to be reminded that it is not the strength of my faith,

not the eloquence of my words,

not anything within me that holds the key to hope and help and healing.

No, all I need is the tiniest seed of faith,

faith that breathes itself out in prayer,

and God will respond in mountain-moving kinds of ways.

Don't be ashamed of your tiny faith.

Don't be ashamed of your tiny prayers.

Trust your Big God with whatever you have,

and prepare to be amazed.

Truth forever on the scaffold ...

My Dad sent me this one-phrase text yesterday:

"Truth forever on the scaffold*,

wrong forever on the throne."

He said it was from an old hymn.

I say, no Dad...

This is prophetic.

No Dad...

This is Kingdom-of-God-kind-of-true.

Truth executed publicly.

Wrong sitting proudly on the throne.

Amen.

(*A scaffold is a raised wooden shelf used for the public execution of criminals)

A prayer ...

God,

May your people who call ourselves by your Son's name

begin to live in the actual ways and teachings of Jesus today.

May we remember that Jesus taught us to lay down our lives for the sake of others,

to never live for ourselves and our own advancement,

but to pour out our lives for the sake of our neighbor.

May we live as Jesus actually lived:

seeking out the lost and lonely,

offering prayer, comfort and healing for the afflicted,

providing safe haven for the marginalized and oppressed,

giving abundant food to the hungry,

offering water to the thirsty,

protecting the humble from the arrogance of religious leaders who forget your heart,

seeking justice where injustice rules.

May we be kind (oh when did we stop being kind?)

May we be compassionate to every human being.

May we be safe places for those who are afraid, and may we never diminish or belittle their fear.

May we stop using the phrase "God is in control" as an excuse for inaction.

May we open our eyes to the needs around us and rather than offering only pious prayer, may we use every last ounce of strength to meet those needs in the name of the One we serve.

May we be humble enough to know that we are often wrong, and that we are often wrong "in your name," which is the most grievous of sins.

May we remember that the only people group we are called to judge is ourselves.

May we read your prophets and hear their sharp words of chastisement as words for us today.

May we stop hoarding your grace, as if we were the final arbiters of who is deserving of it and who is not.

May we remember that no country, no flag, no political party, no political purpose... nothing; nothing on earth is more important than our one allegiance, which is to You, and to the work you have given us... which is to love. To love you. And to love our neighbors - ALL our neighbors - as we love ourselves.

Forgive us, God... when we forget who we are.

And have mercy on us.

Have mercy.

Amen.

 

I must start ...

After a long and contentious political season it is good to pause for a moment,

take a deep, deep breath

and ponder the things for which we are grateful.

Here is my list today:

1. I am grateful to live in a land that is not torn asunder by war. And every day I must pray for peace for those lands that are being torn asunder. I can start - I must start - today.

2. I am grateful that there is nothing holding me back from doing all I can to reach out to those who feel afraid right now. Nothing. I can start - I must start - today.

3. I am grateful for democracy in all its loud and crazy messiness.

4. I am grateful for the church. Despite her sins and blind spots she has the potential to do so much good. And she can start - she must start - today.

5. I am grateful to live in a country where those who voted differently from one another can have civil conversations in an attempt to understand one another. There is nothing stopping me from doing this. I must reach out, ask questions, listen, learn, explain. It is part of what makes our country good. I can start - I must start - today.

6. I am grateful for the brave women who came before me and fought to give me and my daughters the right to vote and make our voices heard. I am grateful for the brave men and women - black and white - who fought to give my black friends and neighors the right to vote and have their voices heard.

7. I am grateful for Jesus' very clear directions for his followers: Love God. Love neighbor as you love yourself. Stop for the wounded on the side of the road, always. Give away your coat. Give away your shirt. Give away your food. Give away your life - all for the sake of others. Do not hate. Do not murder with your words or your thoughts. Do not give your allegiance to the empire, or to Caesar, or to the powers of this world. Live in the awesome power of humility and servanthood. Never use violence to solve anything. The answer to everything is love and grace. 

8. I am grateful that no matter who any of us voted for we can all begin today to reach across divides, across barriers, across ethnic and religious hurdles, across rivers, across languages, to seek reconciliation and common understanding, to offer a hand of peace and friendship, to lift up the burdened, to find ways to free the oppressed, to seek to welcome the weary refugee (its biblical, friends) and to have compassion for all people in the way that Jesus did and does.

9. I am grateful that nothing is stopping me (or you!) from doing any of these things. I can stop complaining and bemoaning the circumstances of the world around me and I can begin to be the change I long to see.

I can start - I must start - today.

Will you join me?

A letter of reference from the poor ...

"Jesus' human origins lie in Judaism, and he stood and taught within their prophetic tradition of charity and justice.

Hundreds of years before his birth, the great Jewish prophets had already coined this mantra:

'The quality of your faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land;

and the quality of justice in the land will be judged by how the weakest and most vulnerable groups in society (widows, orphans and strangers) fared while you were alive.'

Jesus inherited a religious tradition that already emphasized outreach and actions to the poor as a nonnegotiable demand within any true religious practice.

The idea was that our standing with God depended not just on our private prayer and integrity

but also on

how

we 

stand

with

the poor...

In effect, Jesus told us that nobody will get to heaven without a letter of reference from the poor.

This, although clear in the Gospels and in the Jewish Scriptures,

is often misunderstood or rejected by many sincere Christians."

(Ronald Rolheiser)

Just enough religion ...

"We have just enough religion to make us hate one another...

but not enough to make us love one another."

(Jonathan Swift)

Some questions ...

 

Some questions I've been asking myself lately:

1. Do American Christians know what has happened throughout history to the church when it makes "marriage vows" with the State?  (Think Constantine...)

2. If followers of Jesus aren't going to care for the poor, be a voice for the voiceless and watch out for the concerns of the marginalized in our society, are we abdicating one of our primary responsibilities?           (Think Matthew 25...)

3. Where in the Scriptures does it ever say that Christians should devote ANY of our time fighting for our own rights?

4. If the most radical call to love Jesus ever made was his call to love our enemies, what should that look like in today's society? When are we going to have that conversation?

5. If we who live in the richest, most militarily powerful nation in the world forget that the New Testament was written to a people who were under oppression by an occupying, wealthy, military powerhouse, how might we be reading it wrong?

As I ponder these questions and how I am living my own life, I often find myself whispering: "Lord, have mercy on me... a sinner."

You?

Charlottesville ...

I am disgusted, deeply saddened and troubled by what transpired in Charlottesville this past weekend.

I am not even sure I have words to describe what rumbled up in my soul as I watched people marching with torches and banners of hatred.

The darkness of spirit,

the ugly, arrogant, stupidity of racism,

the cancer-like spread of hate, all on the move.

And then to watch the leader of our country apparently unable to articulate any kind of appropriate moral response without being goaded to do so...

it made me angry,

beyond frustrated

and profoundly sad.

And to think that - in ANY way - the teachings of Jesus, the teachings of Scripture, the message of Christianity, could be used to perpetuate this kind of racial bigotry... well, this fueled the flame of indignation in my soul to the level of a raging bonfire.

A couple thoughts:

1. This whole episode caused me to ponder our relatively recent family trip to Cape Town, South Africa, where my daughter was studying African History. We saw the dark underbelly of the aftermath of church-generated Apartheid. Slums that stretched out further than our eyes could see, surrounded by wealth on every side; white wealth. What felt like stolen wealth. Wealth now fiercely proteced behind barbed wire and guns and multiple locked gates. This stunningly beautiful country - filled with so much hope, yes - ravaged and rent asunder by racial bigotry and hatred, too often fueled by a mutant strain of religion. To read of it is one thing, to see it quite another.

Lord, have mercy...

2. I thought of my parents, over 50 years ago, during the height of the racial tensions of the late 1960's in this country, bravely moving their family of 5 - the two of them, and three young children - across our racially divided town, into the heart of what was then known as the "black side" of the river. They did this in an effort to show solidarity with their black brothers and sisters as they put their shoulders to the plow of the burgeoning Civil Rights movement. How proud I am of them for taking courageous action in the midst of strife, for throwing typical "white" caution to the wind, and doing what they felt they were called to do -- to move toward those who were suffering discrimination, rather than away. To move toward their neighbors, rather than away. To move toward the pain, rather than away. To move toward the marginalized, rather than away. To move toward solidarity, rather than blissful isolation. To move toward the good fight, rather than away.

Lord, give me this kind of courage...

Those are my thoughts right now. I have no answers, no bow, no tidy little 3-step program to end racism.

I just know I am part of the problem.

But I can also be part of the solution.

And if the leader of our country will not speak what I know to be true, then I guess it is up to us, all of us, to do so.

And so that starts with me.

Lord, have mercy...

Lord, give me courage...

Tourist Preaching ...

Tourist Preaching - by Frederick Buechner

ENGLISH-SPEAKING TOURISTS abroad are inclined to believe that if only they speak English loudly and distinctly and slowly enough, the natives will know what's being said even though they don't understand a single word of the language.

Preachers often make the same mistake. They believe that if only they speak the ancient verities loudly and distinctly and slowly enough, their congregations will understand them.

Unfortunately, the only language people really understand is their own language, and unless preachers are prepared to translate the ancient verities into it, they might as well save their breath.

Christians are talking ...

Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this:

"Many people are looking for an ear that will listen.

They do not find it among Christians,

because these Christians are talking

when they should be listening."

 

Spiritual malpractice ...

A few more great thoughts and insights from Adam McHugh on listening to people in pain...

McHugh writes about how a colleague of his was headed to visit someone in the hospital and announced, "Time to speak some truth."

McHugh says, "This idea prevails in many Christian circles, that preaching is the healing balm for suffering.

Whether it's sickness or divorce or job loss, a crisis calls for some sound biblical exhortation.

I have a number of issues with this.

First, it assumes that hurting people do not believe the right things or believe with enough fervency. They may end up receiving the message that their faith is not strong enough for them to see their situation rightly, or that something is wrong with them because they are struggling.

Second, preaching to people in pain preys upon the vulnerable.

It's stabbing the sword of truth into their wound and doing surgery without anesthesia.

Unwelcome truth is never healing.

Third, 'speaking truth' into situations of pain is distancing.

You get to stand behind your pulpit or your intercessory prayer that sounds a lot like a sermon, and the other person is a captive audience, trapped in the pew of your anxious truth.  [Alice here... I couldn't love this last phrase more!]

Suffering inevitably makes a person feel small and isolated, and preaching to them only makes them feel smaller and more alone, like a scolded child."

This entire section in my book is bolded, circled, underlined and marked with ten exclamation points!

As a person who suffered through a couple wicked years of post-partum depression while my husband was in seminary, I was "preached at," "prayed over," and scolded with Scripture more times than I can remember.

It was always horrible.

It always made me feel worse and more alone.

It often made me feel like my depression was very much my fault.

And it insinuated that, if I just believed the right thing, memorized the right verse, or prayed the exact right prayer, I would be miraculously (and very quickly!!) healed.

"Speaking truth" to people in pain is spiritual malpractice.

That is what I wrote to one "Christian physical therapist" who did nothing to treat my physical pain, but simply told me that the reason I was suffering was because "the devil did not want my husband to go into the ministry."

Incredible that this stranger knew this very bizarre truth, huh?

Then he charged me for a medical visit that never took place.

Even in the midst of my depression, I knew enough to tell him I would report him for spiritual malpractice if he tried to collect on this bill.

I never heard from him again.

Thank God.

We walk with people in their pain.

We save our preaching for other venues.

As a woman, I have a few words ...

As a woman who works in the church, as the mother of three grown adults,

and frankly, just as a human being,

I have a few words to say about sexual harassment and sexual abuse of power that is rampant in our world:

It has been going on since the beginning of time.

Ask any woman you know, and I bet she will have a story, or three.

I have mine,

including one in which I reported a pastor from a previous church who had a habit of touching women inappropriately.

I was one of those women who thought long and hard, but eventually decided to speak up.

Times were different then.

Those of us who reported were scorned.

The pastor was seen as a victim.

The outcome was dark and ugly and divisive and so hurtful.

Ever wonder why women don't come forward right away and speak their truth?

It is because too often, we tend to shoot our wounded.

Why do you think Jesus had to save the "woman caught in adultery" from being stoned, mostly likely by a group of men? Surely there was a "man caught in adultery" as well, right?

Listen, I love men.

I love and admire my dad, my brother, my father-in-law, my husband, my son, my male colleagues and friends...

This is not an anti-men rant.

It is a strong shot-across-the-bow, though, for all of us.

The day and age where women will just "take it" and be quiet out of fear of backlash may be over, at least for a time.

Let's hope so.

And my plea is that the church - of all places - should be known as one of THE places where women are honored, respected, valued and believed. Where women can walk in and KNOW that they are in a harrassment-free zone.

My fear, however, is that too often the church is the exact opposite.

Too often, we are part of the problem.

It is time - well beyond time - that we instead become leaders in the move toward a solution.

Let's start by seeing women and men as equals.

Let's start by bringing our own darkness into the light and being appropriately repentant about all the ways we as Christians have either mistreated women, or have allowed them to be mistreated.

Let's start by promising to believe women when they work up the courage to be honest about what they have experienced. Let's not cherry pick Bible verses to toss at them like grenades in order to silence them.

Let's start by taking any and all kinds of harassment and abuses of power - sexual or otherwise - very, very seriously as violations of the belief that every human is a divine bearer of the image of God.

Let's just start, church, shall we?

The world waits.

Jesus waits.

A nation's greatness

A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.

(Ghandi)

Of The Empire ...

At times, poetry speaks more eloquently than any other form of speech.

Mary Oliver's poem - Of The Empire - is an example:

"We will be known as a culture that feared death

and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity

for the few and cared little for the penury of the

many. We will be known as a culture that taught

and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke

little if at all about the quality of life for

people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All

the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a

commodity. And they will say that this structure

was held together politically, which it was, and

they will say also that our politics was no more

than an apparatus to accomodate the feelings of

the heart, and that the heart, in those days,

was small, and hard, and full of meanness."

My fellow Christians, please remember that throughout history when we proclaim "Jesus is Lord!"

we are, at the same time, proclaiming that the Empire is not.

Amen.

The unmerciful ...

"The only people toward whom Jesus was not merciful were the unmerciful." (Brian Zahnd)